Williams' strange journey to Columbus

Third year defender recounts his journey to MLS

Josh Williams at Portland

Photo Credit: 
Getty Images

[NOTE: After spending an hour and a half chatting with Crew defender Josh Williams, I had way more material than one article would allow. For the Fox Sports Ohio article, which serves as part one, I focused on the unlikely journey Josh made from high school, to college, and then to the pros, including probably the craziest pro signing story you will ever hear. I also tacked on a coda about the current season, just to make it a relevant standalone story for the FSO audience. What follows is a continuation of Josh’s unlikely journey, picking up right after he signed his contract.]

PART I: HIGH SCHOOL THROUGH PRO SIGNING

This can be read at FoxSportsOhio.com. CLICK HERE

PART II: THE PROS

Williams’ contract signing was already a mindbender for the ages. Still, even once he wrapped his head around his sudden status as a professional, he couldn’t have possibly imagined that within two weeks, he would be asked to start a game in Guatemala City as part of the CONCACAF Champions League. With Columbus already poised to advance in the tournament, Crew head coach Robert Warzycha wanted to give his new signing an early test.

“Bobby (Warzycha) pulled me aside and said, ‘We’re going to start you in Guatemala,’” Williams recalls, “and inside, I was like, ‘WHAT?!?’”

A relentless rain pounded Guatemala City during the Crew’s visit. Williams described himself as “pumped,” but it was the playing field that actually should have been so. Equal parts hog slop and fishing pond, the pitch was declared unfit for warm-ups. The Crew were forced to limber up on a small patch of grass near the running track.

“We get on the field to start the game, and I started laughing to myself,” Williams says. “Two weeks ago I was in college, sitting in a classroom, and now I am in Guatemala playing for the Columbus Crew in a Champions League game in a mud bath.”

As friends and family watched on Fox Soccer Channel, Williams played 62 minutes in the Crew’s 2-1 loss. A month later, he played 82 minutes in a 4-1 win over Joe Public in Trinidad & Tobago that clinched the Crew’s advancement to the quarterfinals. He didn’t see any action for the Crew in MLS play, but he was officially in the record books.

“It was a dream come true,” Williams says. “I actually put on the uniform. I got to wear that uniform and play for the Columbus Crew. That was a big moment in my life.”

It also could have been a short-lived moment in his life if not for another monumental decision that was totally out of his control. In November of 2010, MLS announced that it was expanding its rosters and reinstating a reserve league for the 2011 season. The moves were designed to give teams more depth and to better prepare those players at the bottom of the depth chart. It was yet another lifeline for Williams.

“If we still would have been without the reserve league and still had a 24-man roster,” Crew technical director Bliss says, “Josh most likely would have never been in preseason in 2011.”

However, with the extra roster space, the Crew could afford to develop a young depth player like Williams. In his end-of-year meeting, the coaching staff informed him he would be returning.

“The coaches said they were happy with how I performed after being thrown into the fire. They said, ‘We signed you and you started a game two weeks later. Obviously, you still have to develop, but we think that with enough time, you will develop, so we’re going to give you another year.’ As soon as they said that, I wanted to bust out the biggest smile, but I tried to keep it professional. I was on cloud nine, man.”

To this point, Williams had taken advantage of nearly every break that went his way, whether it was his lone college walk-on offer, his injury-based insertion into Crew scrimmages, his decision to answer the phone in his college classroom while Nyamekye was on the verge of failing a physical, his trial by fire in the CONCACAF Champions League, and the expansion of MLS rosters for 2011.

He may have been on cloud nine, but storm clouds gathered in the distance.

***

2011 got off to a great start for Williams. He showed well in the preseason and even made the game day roster for the Crew’s CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal matches and in the MLS season opener at D.C. United. But in April, he tore the labrum in his right hip when he slipped awkwardly at practice. The options were season-ending surgery, or months of non-surgical rehab work. Being a young and inexperienced player, Williams felt he could not afford to write off his whole season.

“I hadn’t made it yet, and if I missed the whole year, they were just going to cut me,” Williams says. “They don’t have room for that. I’m a totally unproven guy. So instead of surgery, I devoted myself to rehab to try to get back to the level I was. And then MLS dropped a bomb on me…”

While having dinner with teammates Cole Grossman and Julius James, Williams got a call from an unknown number. Just like at Cleveland State, he decided to answer. Once again, the call was unexpected and life-changing. This time, however, the news was devastating. The league was calling to tell him that he had failed a test for performance-enhancing drugs.

“When I heard the word ‘steroids’ I didn’t hear anything they said for the next two minutes,” Williams recalls. “I was in shock. I was trying to think of what it could possibly be. What the hell did I do? I was telling these guys, ‘Look, I didn’t take anything. I’m not that type of guy. You can ask anybody.’”

Williams had violated the cardinal rule of supplement use, which is to clear every supplement with the team’s training staff before ingesting it. Earlier in the 2011 season, before his injury, Williams visited a national chain store to make his regular purchase of an approved protein when the salesman encouraged him to try a different product.

“I told the guy at the store that I play for the Crew and I can’t take anything crazy because there are over-the-counter things that are banned for us, and with the utmost confidence he took me to a shelf and told me that this product tests out fine. In my mind, I was like, ‘You work at [national chain store], so you know what you’re talking about.’ That’s where my downfall was.”

Williams took the supplement after leaving the store, and then dutifully, although belatedly, asked the Crew’s trainers about it the next morning at practice. The product was not on the banned list, but the trainers were unfamiliar with it, so they recommended that Williams err on the side of caution and stop taking it. He followed their orders, but took the fateful drug test shortly thereafter.

Reeling from the phone call, Williams had to keep the news secret for nearly two months, pending the investigation and official announcement. Grossman and James knew from the dinner table that night, and Crew player union rep William Hesmer lent a hand during the proceedings, but everyone else was in the dark. It was his silent burden.

“I thought about it every night,” he says. “I would lie awake and wonder what was going to happen. I thought, ‘When this breaks, I am done.’ That was hard. I’m a positive person, and I try to take the best out of things, but I didn’t see anything good coming out of this.”

As part of the process, Williams met with MLS commissioner Don Garber and a league attorney to explain what happened. He also provided the league with the bottle of the offending supplement. Garber empathized, but stressed that players are ultimately responsible for what they put into their bodies. As a consequence of his mistake, the league suspended Williams for 10 games and fined him 10 percent of his salary. The announcement was scheduled for the evening of June 8, giving Williams a chance to tell his team that morning.

After yet another sleepless night, Williams went to training on the morning of June 8, broke the news to Warzycha, and then asked to address the players himself. “I thought that was the right thing to do,” he says. “I didn’t want them to find out any other way. I wanted to personally talk to them and apologize to them for putting them in this situation.”

The players expressed support for Williams and vowed to vouch for his character when the inevitable questions came.

“I knew it was going to get out to the press, and I didn’t know what was going to happen with that, but at least the guys I train with every day, they had my back. I still appreciate that so much. Everyone knew where I was at, and that was a real pick-me-up.”

Given the straightforward nature of the case and the tangible evidence at hand, all of which pointed to an honest mistake, MLS did grant Williams a measure of leniency. The 10-game suspension was absolute, but the accompanying practice ban and fine were cut in half.

His name was still out there and his suspension still stood, but gaining that practice time meant the world to Williams. Having missed the first part of the season through injury and the middle part due to suspension, he would need to be in fine form for the final third of the campaign. His career was at stake.

***

Returning to practice, Williams felt sluggish. Not having played in three months, the speed and intensity of the training sessions once again seemed overwhelming, as if he were a freshman at Cleveland State all over again. This time, Williams had no doubts about where he wanted to be.

“It felt so good to be back out there,” Williams says. “It was like I had new life. I was just happy to still be on the team. I was still wearing the Crew crest on my chest, and I felt born again.”

Williams worked his way back into match fitness, and upon regaining his eligibility, went the full 90 minutes in a 1-0 reserve league victory over Philadelphia on August 21. Williams would start the next five reserve league matches, all victories, as the Crew claimed the 2011 reserve league crown.

“Those reserve games meant a lot to me,” Williams says. “I took them very seriously, and I’m glad everyone else did too, because it paid off in a reserve league title.”

The question was whether or not his run of form for the reserve league champs would be enough to keep Williams around after a season marred by injury and suspension. The answer would come in his year-end meeting with the Crew’s braintrust. It certainly wasn’t the season that Williams or the Crew envisioned.

“I took the concept of the ‘sophomore slump’ to a whole new level,” he says. “That was the worst slump you can get into.”

Williams knew that as an unproven player without a solid soccer pedigree to fall back on, the Crew had no reason to keep him around if they had even the tiniest doubts about his ability or his character. It wasn’t like a baseball team looking the other way as the star slugger knocked balls out of the park. If they thought Williams was a malingerer, a steroid cheat, or a player who had already maxed out on his potential, they could have let him go with nary a second thought.

Fortunately for Williams, the Crew had none of those concerns. According to Bliss, the reserve league games gave them a good assessment on Williams’ progress as a player. His personal character also worked in has favor, as it erased all concerns about the testing incident, which Crew concluded was a legitimate mistake.

“It didn't hurt that he was a good locker room guy and teammate,” says Bliss, “or it would have been easy to write him off.”

Williams met with Bliss, Warzycha, and Mark McCullers. Although they hadn’t seen as much of him as they had liked, they told Williams that they were happy with his development. He would be coming back for 2012.

“I thanked the coaches for sticking by me,” Williams says. “They could have gone either way with that. I was so appreciative, and I let them know that I was going to work as hard as I can for them because they were sticking with me and believing in me.”

***

After an offseason of hard work and a solid preseason, Williams would finally experience a moment he had always dreamed about. He would run onto the field at Crew Stadium in a real Columbus Crew match. The emotion of the moment wasn’t so much about his own desires, but about the love and support of his parents. They had traveled to all but one of his college games, both home and away, all over the country. They were only able to watch his 2010 CONCACAF Champions League appearances on television, but this time, they could watch him with their own two eyes.

“That’s where a dream came true,” he says. “I remember coming to Crew games with my mom and dad. I wanted to play for the Crew and for them to get to see me play in Crew Stadium.”

When the big moment came, as he subbed in for Sebastian Miranda in the 75th minute, his mind didn’t immediately focus on his duties as a right back. As he jogged into position, he imagined the scene of his mother, Kathy, watching from the stands.

“I remember running onto the field and thinking, ‘Mom is probably crying right now,’” Williams says with a smile. “Sure enough, I found out she was crying up in the stands. I have some weird thoughts out on the field. That’s actually what I was thinking. ‘Mom is probably crying right now.’ But that was another highlight in my short career for now.”
 
On April 21, Williams would experience another career highlight—his first career start. With center backs Julius James and Carlos Mendes still out injured, with Eric Gehrig coming off of a rough couple of weeks after a terrific start in Toronto, and with Danny O’Rourke being shifted into his natural defensive midfielder position, every conceivable domino had finally fallen into place.  

“I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I’d be,” he says. “I felt confidence in myself. When game time came around, I was so pumped up, man. I walked out onto the field and thought, ‘Man, this is what I signed up for. This is where I pictured myself being.’ It was an unbelievable feeling to walk out and hear the crowd.”

The following week would be even more special. With his former Cleveland Internationals teammate Michael Nanchoff in town with Vancouver, Williams earned another start in front of a large throng of friends and family from northeast Ohio. He provided them with thrills too, scoring a goal that would be waved off due to an off-the-ball foul and rocketing a spectacular bicycle kick off the crossbar.

“That would have topped it all,” Williams says. “If that had gone in, I wouldn’t have had to do anything the rest of my career. I would have been happy to hang on to that moment for the rest of my life. But even though those didn’t count, it picked me up. It gave me confidence that I could play at this level. I was getting in the right spots and helping the team out.”

A week later, Williams would pass his biggest test yet. A Chad Marshall concussion simultaneously stripped Williams of his security blanket, but also reunited him with his dear friend, college nemesis, and reserve league center back partner, Eric Gehrig. Not only that, but the Horizon League duo would have to get it done in Portland, in front of one of the loudest crowds in the league.

“Not only am I worried about Chad, but I also know that I don’t have a lot of experience,” Williams says. “It’s comforting to know that if I mess up, the superhero named Chad can clean anything up. I’m confident in myself, but it’s always good to have Chad Marshall back there. He’s such a great player.”

But Williams trusted in Gehrig. They had played against each other in college, and grew to respect each other’s games. In fact, Cleveland State lost to Gehrig’s Loyola-Chicago team in the Horizon League final during Williams’ junior season. Once reunited on the Crew, they bonded as long-shot defenders.

“I love Eric,” Williams says. “We always talked about how we just needed a chance, but a lot of things would have to happen. And now it seemed like all of those things were happening.”

Playing in front of a familiar goalkeeper in Andy Gruenebaum, it was just like the reserve league days for the heart of the Crew’s defense that night. Despite the communication issues caused by the raucous crowd, they earned a shutout.

“Gehrig and I feed off each other,” he says.  “We’re very comfortable. It was almost surreal, looking across at Eric as we played in front of 20,000 people. I couldn’t even talk to him and he was 10 feet away. That was awesome.  It was a battle and we stood up to the test.”

There was another test the following week in a 2-1 victory over Dallas, and big tests loom during the upcoming road trip to San Jose and Seattle. That’s the thing about being a professional athlete—the tests never stop.

*****

It’s always tough to know what you have in a young, unknown player. The Crew saw enough in the college scrimmages to keep Williams in mind at the end of 2010. They saw enough in the CONCACAF Champions League games that fall to bring him back for 2011. They knew his character well enough to see through his suspension, and they saw enough in the reserve games to bring him back for 2012. They also knew he was a fantastic practice player. Anyone on the 2008 championship team can speak as to how important that can be. In his postgame speech after MLS Cup, Sigi Schmid went out of his way to praise the likes of Jason Garey, Stefani Miglioranzi, and Duncan Oughton for elevating the level of practice every day, keeping the starters sharp. Williams is cut from the same cloth.

You can know all of that about a player, but still not be entirely sure what you’re going to get in a real game. After a long and improbable journey, Williams is now able to show them.

“Josh is not overly technical,” says Bliss, “but he plays within himself and keeps it relatively simple, which allows him to make routine plays all the time. He has good physical abilities in terms of running, jumping and 1-v-1 defending. He is difficult to beat and mentally strong.
His offensive stuff is an asset, but more gravy than anything. We’re not really counting on it, but we know that he has shown some abilities there, and it's nice to have.”

Williams acknowledges how far he has come, but is mindful that he isn’t at the end of the journey, but at a new beginning.

“It’s still surreal that I’m out there and starting for my childhood team,” he says. “Every day I am thankful that I even have the opportunity to play soccer for a living. That blows my mind. So I approach every day like it’s my first. I’m always trying to learn. I’m always asking questions. I’ve got Chad Marshall, so I try to learn from him. And Julius James. And Carlos Mendes. There are a lot of veterans that I try to learn from every day. I try to get information from the coaches and improve myself every day. I’m all ears, man. I am willing to take the criticism and use it to get better.

“I mean, it’s only three games. Chad has been doing this for nine years. Eddie Gaven’s been doing this for 10 years. They have consistent games every game. For me to think that I’m anything, or that I’ve made it after three games, that’s not how I’m looking at it. I just want to keep playing at a level that makes it hard for anybody to take me out of the lineup.”

If Williams can somehow make the path to get him out of the lineup as incalculably difficult to traverse as the path that got him into the lineup, he is, by definition, going to have a very long MLS career.

****

PART III: Bonus interview material is available on the blog! Read Josh on losing to Eric Gehrig while at Cleveland State, on meeting Frankie Hejduk for the first time, on growing up a Crew fan, on being a Cleveland sports fan, and much more!

CLICK HERE

Questions? Comments? Thinking of trying out for the Crew, just in case? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk